PORTLAND – Widely known as a businessman who turned a $300 investment into a 49-store auto parts chain, Thomas O. Auger of Lewiston was remembered this week as a humble man who generously gave back to his community and those around him.

“A lot of nonprofit organizations got quiet contributions from him,” said Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce in Lewiston. “Lots of people would whisper, ‘I got a contribution from Tom.’ “

Auger died Wednesday at the Hospice House in Auburn. He was 82.

Morrison, who occasionally partnered with Auger in local golf tournaments, called him “an icon” in the Lewiston community, known for his generosity and business success.

Auger was born in Lewiston in 1928. After high school he was signed as a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, though a shoulder injury ended his baseball career early.

In 1951 he married his wife of 59 years, Mildred. After four years in the U.S. Air Force, Auger began selling tires for BFGoodrich.

With $300 in borrowed cash, Auger launched his own tire store, L&A Tire, out of a rented garage in the late 1950s.

Auger expanded his business into auto parts and accessories sales. In 1976 he renamed the company VIP Discount Auto Center.

With help from his son Thomas J. Auger and VIP’s staffers, Auger grew the business into one of New England’s largest auto parts chains. At one point, VIP had some 49 stores.

“He was a gambler, a maverick, a risk taker,” said his son Thomas.

Auger sold VIP in 2001 to Quirk Tire & Service Corp. for an undisclosed amount. “We ended up with quite a bit of money,” he told The Associated Press at the time.

But Auger didn’t keep all the money; he gave some $2 million to VIP’s employees. Some staffers received tens of thousands of dollars.

“They made the business, not him. He was very dedicated to all his workers,” said Mildred.

Auger also contributed to the community, funding fireworks shows, a balloon festival and other events.

Auger suffered a stroke prior to selling VIP. His health began a long decline, said Thomas.

Mildred said some of her fondest memories are of vacations the couple took overseas, trips paid by longtime business partner BFGoodrich.

The couple visited Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia. “He loved seeing new places,” she said.

Mildred said her husband also enjoyed cooking for the crew at the tire store. And on Saturdays he often greeted staff with coffee and doughnuts.

He also played games at work, Mildred said. Sometimes he’d write a number on a dollar bill; staffers who guessed the number kept the money.

“He was very well loved. He was kind and thoughtful,” his wife said.

Some of Thomas’ best memories with his father are of hanging around the shop as a kid.

“We were always busy. He gave me a lot of responsibility,” Thomas said. “I used to work in the return shop, pulling studs out of tires.”

When Thomas was 15, his father bought him a Plymouth Duster 340. “I was a sophomore with a brand-new car,” Thomas remembered.

But Thomas said the last 10 years were some of his best with his father. “I spent more time with him after we sold the company. We became closer,” he said.

Thomas said he and his dad drove around town and ate meals together. His father loved lobster dinners. Thomas dreamed of buying a motor home and touring the country with his dad.

Auger suffered a heart attack a few months ago. He also had diabetes. He was placed on kidney dialysis.

A few days ago his father asked to be taken off dialysis, Thomas said.

“We ordered a couple of hot dogs and some apple pie and ice cream and brought him to the hospice center. Those last few days were incredible,” Thomas said.

Auger died at 5 a.m. Wednesday morning.

“He always had a smile on his face until the day he died. He was telling the doctors, ‘I will miss you,’ ” said Thomas.

In addition to Mildred and son Thomas, Auger is survived by two daughters, Carol Sweeney of Falmouth and Nancy Hunt of Naples, Fla., three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A wake will be held from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at Pinette & Lynch Funeral Home in Lewiston. A funeral service is scheduled for Monday at 11 a.m. at the Holy Family Church on Sabattus Street.

The family asked that memorial donations in Auger’s memory be made to Androscoggin Home Care & Hospice in Auburn.

 

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or: [email protected]